Thursday, June 2, 2011

Nuts and Bolts: Kongs, Glorious Kongs

I love Kongs.

If I ruled the world, every dog would own at least one Kong. The miraculous distraction powers of those tough little rubber beehives may not be literally magical, but they aren't far from it. They serve simultaneously as treats, chew toys, puzzles and bouncing balls, and I have never known a dog who didn't love them (although I've certainly met dogs who needed a little help figuring out what to do with them at first!). Kongs should be showered with glory and hosannas... especially if you're a foster parent.

A Kong is a hollow, bumpy-surfaced toy made of super tough rubber -- the same kind used to make airplane tires, I'm told. The basic concept is simple: stuff food inside and let the dog try to get it out by licking, chewing, and dropping the toy. Simple as it is, however, it can keep a dog entertained for hours.

They're not kidding about the "world's best dog toy."
Because Kongs are so durable, they're probably the best value-for-money to be found in the world of dog toys. Most dogs can't damage a Kong, no matter how hard they chew, and there are extra-tough Kong Extremes for the rare ones who can. You can use a Kong over and over again (the regular ones are dishwasher safe, and it's pretty easy to scrub out any errant food bits with an old toothbrush and some soapy water), and by changing up what you stuff inside, you can keep them constantly new and exciting.

When a dog is first being introduced to Kongs, it's a good idea to use smelly food that's relatively easy to get, and to put it near the mouth of the toy so the dog can reach it immediately. Kibble bits loosely stuck to smears of peanut butter, dog biscuits just barely wedged in there, and other easy-to-get treats are good for beginners.

As the dog becomes more adept with working food out of Kongs, you can start really jamming the food into those things. Two of my favorite techniques are frozen Kongs and jerky Kongs.

Frozen Kongs are awesome. Stuff a Kong with a mixture of wet food (I use homemade "dog stew," but canned food is fine too) and kibble, stick it in the freezer overnight, and in the morning you will have one of the finest dog toys known to humankind. It takes Pongu about 20 minutes to empty a medium Kong filled with frozen dog food and up to 30 minutes to empty a large one. Rawhide chews only last half as long. Pig ears are gone in a paltry three or four minutes, and with less nutrition and more calories to boot. The clear winner: frozen Kongs.

Our freezer pretty much always looks like this.

I love frozen Kongs so much that I feed foster dogs almost all their meals from frozen Kongs in crates. This prevents squabbling over food (since the foster's in a crate, Pongu can't steal its dinner) and helps the foster dog learn to think of its crate as a place where it gets delicious meals served in spiffy toys. Also, because the frozen Kong keeps the dog totally absorbed for a solid half hour, I can sneak away to take a bath or get dressed for work without worrying that the mutt puppies will get into trouble while I'm not looking.

Only slightly less awesome is the jerky Kong, a fine alternative to use when you don't have six hours to wait for a freshly packed Kong to freeze or just don't think your dog needs that much extra food. I like to use Plato Wise Treats jerky strips, which are conveniently cut into just the right size and shape to wedge into a medium Kong (some of them are a little too thin to use alone, but if you stuff two of those in together, you've got a well-packed Kong).

Jerky Kongs, in my experience, last longer than peanut butter Kongs (unless they're frozen) or biscuit-stuffed Kongs. This is because as the dog chews and licks at the jerky stuffed inside the Kong, the dried meat absorbs moisture and swells, thereby becoming even more tightly wedged inside the toy. The dog can taste the meat, which encourages him to keep working, but it usually takes a good long time before he can actually wiggle the jerky out.

"...almost got it... almost got it..."
You can stuff just about anything you want into a Kong: cream cheese, peanut butter, kibble soaked in chicken broth, dog biscuits. If it's sticky enough to adhere to the sides or hard enough to be wedged inside and put up some resistance to tugging, it'll work. And your dog will thank you... or, like Pongu, drop his empty Kong meaningfully on your feet every morning.

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